BMCR 2024.01.03

Ancient olive presses and oil production in Cyrenaica (North-East Libya)

, Ancient olive presses and oil production in Cyrenaica (North-East Libya). London: British Institute for Libyan and Northern African Studies, 2022. Pp. 176. ISBN 9781915808004.

Open access


The analysis of olive oil and wine production in the Roman world has seen increasing attention over the last two decades—a product of rapidly growing archaeological datasets and an improved ability to discern the remains of facilities and equipment, but also of new scientific approaches and increased scholarly interest in aspects of agriculture, lifeways and non-elite daily life. This book fits within a trajectory of site-based or regional studies on presses and associated infrastructure (cf. Waliszewski 2014; Papi and Bigi 2015; Dodd 2020, 2022; Peña Cervantes 2023; Van Limbergen et al. 2024) and seeks to fill a substantial lacuna that has long beset the region of Cyrenaica. It thus not only builds up our understanding of Cyrenaica’s own landscape and economy in the “mid to late Roman periods”, but also makes a crucial contribution to the rising quantity of pan-Mediterranean evidence, including typologies and technologies related to oil and wine production.

Buzaian’s book derives from an ambitious doctoral project (completed in 2019) incorporating data gathered from 104 rural sites across an area of about 30,000 km2. While the level of catalogued data and descriptive detail is exemplary, its origins as a thesis remain clear in terms of organisation and style. This often makes for cumbersome reading, even for the specialist, through long sections of highly detailed technical data. It is arranged into nine chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusion, with the first five focussing exclusively on the specific evidence for olive oil (and wine) production facilities. While this organisation is logical, it has caused substantial repetition within and across chapters that might have otherwise been consolidated (e.g. repeating regularly that the presence of a mill and mortar indicates oil production, which really only needs to be stated once or twice). Nonetheless, the assessment of 876 milling and pressing implements is no small task, and the author rightly recognises this as an “enormous increase in the archaeological evidence relating to oil production”.

What makes this book perhaps most impressive are the exceptionally challenging local conditions and socio-political circumstances (cf. p. 31, echoed on p. 147) within which the project was completed. Buzaian explains that insecurity from early 2011 caused by the aftermath of the Libyan revolution brought surveys to a premature end, and how plans to process material in 2015 were prevented by the abrupt war in Benghazi in 2015, which resulted in the destruction of property and loss of collected material (p. 31). The vast magnitude of cultural heritage under threat and the time-sensitive recording and protection that this entails (e.g. the site of Messa, which has since been destroyed) reinforce the invaluable nature of this resource and research. The author simply must be congratulated for this.

Since the field of ancient oil and wine production has witnessed such an increase in interest and activity over recent decades, researchers now have within their grasp large datasets with extensive discussion and bibliography from across the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, in this instance, much of this comparative detail is missing from the outset, which would have been useful to situate Buzaian’s excellent study in a broader context and immediately contribute to wider debate on the nature, development and mechanics of oil and wine production systems. The work would have benefitted by integrating, for example, Bigi’s (2018) research at Volubilis, which provides some extremely interesting comparative regional discussion on press preference and manufacturing habits, and further afield in Hispania/Lusitania (Peña Cervantes 2010), Italy (Baratta 2005; Van Limbergen 2011), Greece and the Aegean (Papi and Bigi 2015; Dodd 2021), the eastern Mediterranean (Aydinoğlu and Şenol 2010; Waliszewski 2014) and Egypt (Gómez 2017), among many other site-specific studies. These omissions are particularly evident in the last chapter of the book, where discussion attempts to draw out overarching conclusions yet lacks requisite comparative data from this rich research history into ancient wine and oil production; figure 9.1, for example, presents an inaccurate vision of press type distribution across the Mediterranean. The lack of a wider bibliographic foundation renders the potentially very important sub-section – ‘Windlass vs Screw Technology’ – somewhat outdated and unsatisfactory in terms of the integrated regional material. Furthermore, the topical discussion of efficiency in pressing mechanisms (p. 141) is addressed by Lewit (2020), omitted here, which makes a convincing argument based on archaeological, literary and ethnographic evidence and would have strengthened the thesis that screw presses are not necessarily more efficient.

Specialists working with archaeological and literary data for oil and wine presses have long suffered from the application of inconsistent terminology and cataloguing systems – things with which this sub-field continues to grapple. Buzaian, while generating a comprehensive catalogue of material, falls into many of the same traps of previous studies, including, for example, overly regionalised descriptors for press equipment that cannot easily be mapped onto broader existing syntheses, or the use of terminology that does not clearly describe the object in question (e.g. ‘basin’ for a mill mortar stone). This is not necessarily a critique of Buzaian’s work in particular, but rather something that the broader field urgently needs to remedy if we are to use transregional data to answer bigger questions on production, economy, and knowledge exchange. In this specific case, the flow of arguments often suffers due to the inconsistent application of terminology (e.g. the first paragraph of 3.3.2 on p. 36 uses three variations of a term to describe the same thing in just two sentences). The author also tends to lapse into the use of loose chronological descriptors: for example, using ‘Ancient Greek’ to describe press development is problematic over such a broad geographical area (the ‘Greek world’) that experienced Greek influence differently over a long temporal span, and referring to presses as ‘Roman’ remains awkward given the diversity in cultural and social groups that inevitably played a role in the evolution of production technologies.

Despite these pitfalls and inconsistencies, the book successfully grapples with important concepts unresolved in contemporary debates related to agriculture, technology and oil production: for example, the degree to which olive stones were crushed, the impact of this on oil flavour and its relationship to the mechanism used (pp. 65–7). Similarly, the author provides an invaluable overview of early modern interaction with this region and its agricultural regime(s), including the suggestion that the post-Roman socio-cultural and agricultural history of Cyrenaica, with its limited interest in olive cultivation, might be directly related to preservation trends of particular types of material evidence, namely mill mortar stones (p. 67). This is an attractive consideration when set in contrast with other regions that experienced continual oleicultural practice (e.g. parts of Greece and Italy), and where objects like ancient mill mortar and crushing stones are much less commonly found.

Rock-cut installations are also emerging as a key area in the future study of ancient wine and oil production and were an underutilised resource until the last decade. The facilities detailed by Buzaian (pp. 100ff.), especially those that reuse subterranean tombs, are key additions to our comparative understanding of other rock-cut facilities that exist across almost the entire Mediterranean landscape, even extending in identical shapes and forms into the highlands of Pakistan. Once more, however, the author neither integrates or acknowledges the vast comparative dataset and bibliography from other regions (e.g. Aydinoğlu and Alkaç 2008; Baldiran 2010; Peña Cervantes 2010; Olcese 2013; Oğuz-Kırca and Coşkun 2022) nor attempts to set the data from Cyrenaica into broader debate surrounding this phenomenon.

The book’s closing chapters diverge somewhat from its primary focus, discussing the relationship between Cyrenaica’s quantified population and oil production, and amphora production and trade respectively. Much ink has been dedicated to the challenges of calculating ancient population sizes, and suffice to say this is a contentious exercise in quantification. While this is certainly no reason to discount its inclusion in a study of this kind – indeed, it is intellectually interesting, and the author goes some way towards acknowledging the problematic nature of such calculations – its usefulness here, mostly due to high levels of unreliability in data sources and methods, remains unclear. The following chapter on ceramic production and trade gives rise to similar sentiments. Often circular arguments are presented, which highlight the problems inherent in associating an amphora type to a commodity based on morphology alone. On the other hand, Buzaian’s discussion on the use of skins and other containers made from organic materials for local transport, along with interconnections with local livestock farming, is particularly valuable (pp. 136ff.). It is understandable why the author has attempted to integrate these chapters. With such limited space devoted to comparatively large topics, however, one often feels as though the analysis suffers and should either have been addressed more substantially or left for a separate publication and the focus here given entirely to production facilities, their contexts and broader regional and extra-regional syntheses.

The concluding chapter effectively and succinctly identifies overarching themes under headings drawn mainly from the book’s chapters in order, and foregrounds several important future considerations. Buzaian raises an intriguing prospect, that screw pressing technology was initially integrated in winery contexts in Italy, France, Syria, Palestine and Cyprus, and was then later adopted to produce oil. While this original argument has merit, I am not yet convinced that we can so unequivocally support such a trend. We simply do not have enough appropriately contextualised, dated and in situ counterweights with production facilities, and enough facilities convincingly attributed to either wine or olive oil, to make these claims. What Buzaian does do, however, is engage with difficult questions in this field that are not always considered in past publications. Raising such questions is a strength of this book, even if the evidence does not yet justify solutions.

The book as a whole is well illustrated with plentiful colour figures throughout, supplemented by online appendices and made open access, for which both publisher and author should be commended. A brief glossary of frequently-used terms might have been helpful at times, especially to clarify vague chronological windows (e.g. ‘mid to late Roman’). Unfortunately, the text also presents typographical and grammatical errors (p. 8 suffers considerably) along with awkward phrasing on most pages and stylistic inconsistencies (e.g. Pliny NH, NH or NH.). A careful copy edit would have created a substantially more polished publication for what is otherwise a nicely produced and accessible monograph.

Buzaian should be commended for generating an invaluable addition to the archaeological corpus of oil and wine production equipment and infrastructure. While it would be desirable to see substantially more comparative analysis, including interconnection into broader studies thus giving wider relevance to the author’s monumental regional effort, the nature of this dataset, especially considering its contemporary context, makes it a valued open access resource for archaeologists and historians interested in ancient North Africa, olive oil and wine, agriculture and economies.



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